I woke up this morning to news that Clarence Clemons, saxophonist and chief foil to Bruce Springsteen, has suffered a stroke.

Early reports said two things at once – they don’t know how serious the stroke was, and Clemons is seriously ill.

I’m generally immune to ‘my generation’ moments, but not this one. First, a truth that doesn’t get acknowledged often enough: Clemons has been less important to the E Street Band’s music since Springsteen moved away from the urban sound of ‘Born To Run,’ and that’s a long time. Clemons is an honored elder statesman, the key figure in the creation myth of ‘How Bruce Became The Boss,’ but there were times when it felt like Springsteen struggled to hold Clarence’s place as first among equals.

And yet, the E Street Band is as inconceivable without Clarence Clemons as it is without Springsteen himself, for two reasons. One looks backward: the role Clarence Clemons played in the early 70s was that of the best present ever. Rock music was profoundly white in 1972, 73 and moving away rapidly from the dream of the 60s, the hope that somehow the races could be easy with each other. Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen single-handedly put that idea back on the table in popular culture; they were intimate on stage, so assured of their masculinity and rightness that they could lead the audience (as Springsteen did in “Tenth Avenue Freezeout”) night after night from ‘scary black man’ to ‘Bruce and Clarence, lighting out for the territories.’ It was a complex and graceful act, and once you became a Springsteen fan you could never think about race in the same way again.

The other reason is very current: over the last few years (say, starting with ‘Magic’) Springsteen has pushed himself and the band, hard. He has set a marker, a little like Dylan, who will tour until he can’t, except that Springsteen is not just Springsteen and backup. He has to keep the whole band in shape and on the road, at a time when most men are retiring. Bruce and Clarence have long since transcended black and white and now stand for something equally as complex, the way friendships extend through a lifetime, and the way we ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Mortality always wins, but…not yet, please.


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